April 21, 2021

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Myanmar Explodes – Project Syndicate


The recent military takeover in Myanmar means that all the countries of continental Southeast Asia – which also include Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam – are now under authoritarian rule, like their giant northern neighbor, China. How can democratic powers most effectively influence developments in this strategically important country, and what impact will the crisis have on Asian regional cooperation?

In this Big Picture, Indian MP Shashi Tharoor notes that Myanmar’s neighbors are treading warily in the coup’s aftermath, with many in India urging their country to stand up for democracy and human rights while others counsel pragmatism and caution. Brahma Chellaney of the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research advises Western democracies to take the latter course and seek constructive engagement with the generals, pointing out that US sanctions against Myanmar and other countries have often worked to China’s advantage in the past.

And yet, as Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok shows, the damage has been done, because the military coup has divided the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, with the body’s more democratic member states calling for a principled response and its more authoritarian members favoring a hands-off approach. More broadly, Korea University’s Lee Jong-Wha argues that tensions between countries with vastly different governance models are preventing the emergence of unified, collective regional leadership, making the idea of an Asian twenty-first century seem like a distant prospect.

Finally, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, in a commentary written in the aftermath of the United Kingdom’s 2016 Brexit referendum, warns that greater disunity in Asia – including among its democracies – is particularly dangerous, because the region lacks effective formal institutions like the European Union.